‘Show Boat’: True American Entertainment

New Washington National Opera Artistic Director Francesca Zambello has said that, in addition to classic opera works, the WNO would be emphasizing American themes, works and artists.

You cannot get much more American than the final spring season production of “Show Boat,” the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein III quasi-opera and quasi-prototype of American musical which contains within it all the great American themes of race, show business, the more melodramatic sufferings surrounding of love and family, as well as almost every form genre of popular American entertainment, theater, and music performed and created here up to 1927, when it premiere at the National Theatre, no less.

As presented and molded by Zambello, originally at the Chicago Lyric Opera, much of this “Show Boat” seems almost old-fashioned—so much so that it seems both authentic and daring. It’s authentic in the sense that you would imagine with little effort that this is just how the show might have seen the light of night when it was first staged—there are touches of melodramatic acting in the style of the time, large-gestured (and big-hearted) emoting that seem not so much flowery as genuine, ballroom music, a touch of rag, a big hunk of sad, some vaudeville funny and gorgeous music of all sorts.

Visually, “Show Boat” is a wowser of a spectacle with a big stage piece representing the showboat the Cotton Blossom, moored in Natchez, Mississippi, that is of a size and vivid color that you think it just might keep right on rolling onto the stage like old man river. And there is that cast of 100—not only the main characters, but African Americans who live and work on the boat and keep it floating with back-breaking toil, but townspeople, gamblers, dock workers, girls and boys, kids and old folks back home.

In some ways, this production is a little beyond category. While it’s not strictly speaking an opera (it has dialogue, with overhead subtitles), most of it is sung, and there is always music running through the story unobtrusive but telling like, well, a river, or rivulet, repeated themes and bits of song and melody. It also seems to be the first true American musical comedy with the kind of seriousness of story and theme that wouldn’t again be achieved until “Oklahoma” emerged in the 1940s. (“Porgy and Bess,” while it contained similar story and thematic material and a mixture of musical genre, was an opera, nevertheless, a decidedly American opera, which Zambello has directed here in the past).

“Show Boat” is about the people on the boat and the times they live in and through, with all the travails of daily life, and the trauma of melodrama, of the kind of theater the boat presents, along with bits of song and dance, on the river. There’s the genial and long suffering Captain Andy, who runs the show, can do a soft shoe in a pinch and is as tolerant of others as possible in the times. There’s the work-weary Joe. There’s young Magnolia and the star-crossed Julie. There is the riverboat gambler with the resonant (of soaring tenors and smooth-voiced, no-accounts) name of Gaylord Ravenal.

“Show Boat” is based on a nervy novel of the 1920s by Edna Ferber who also penned “Giant” and has nothing but troubles for its characters. Magnolia falls for Ravenal, marries him, has a child by him and is dumped by him after one last losing streak. Julie is a product of a mixed black and white marriage and is married to a white man, a situation which was illegal in the segregated South.

There are songs (and there is music) which are achingly familiar and come through the filters of various styles—“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “My Man (Bill)”—are two of the finest ballads on the theme of helpless love ever written. Soprano Alyson Cambridge kills them with a great trembling power and juice as Julie. “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” becomes at various times transformative, when Queenie (a part whose Mammie-like qualities are sabotaged by Angela Renee Simpson with earthy power and humor) joins Magnolia and Julie in a fast-paced dance and a ragtime number when sung by Magnolia years later at the Tracadero. Simpson also fuels the great prophecy-like “Misery’s Coming” with raw foreboding.

Most of the cast members are not household names by any means, but fairly soon they ought to be. You have to single out Morris Robinson who takes on a song sung by legendary performers like Paul Robeson, but who makes it his own with a range that steadily finds its most direct way to the heart. Movie versions and record versions, to my experience, never hold a candle to the real thing, which is a song marching out to you.

Michael Todd Simpson does a curious thing with the part of Ravenal, attractive, smooth, smitten but also keenly aware of his weakness, of who he is and will be. It’s a tricky business to play a melodramatic part. Simpson uses a melodramatic style in such a winning way that you can see why the clear-eyed Magnolia is swept clear off her feet. They bring the house down in their love-at-first-sight “It’s Only Make Believe” rendition, doing a song that comes straight out of the operetta songbook but manages to sweep everything before it.

But it’s Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman who is the heart and soul of the show—her portrayal of Magnolia—who suffers greatly, but endures without sentimentality, and rises to become a Ziegfeld star—is so spot on, so likeable without being treacly, that she embodies the spirit of the production which is to fill every bit of music, drama, every ache and feeling and hitch and rag dance move with so much gusto that it feels authentic.

This “Show Boat” is not only make-believe but is also the real thing—a true American entertainment.

The Washington National Opera production of “Show Boat” runs through May 26 at the Opera House of the Kennedy Center.

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